What Asinus Teaches
- The Legend of Clovis and the Fleur-de-Lys
- The Fleur-de-Lys in Medieval Heraldry
- The French “Copyright” on the Fleur-de-Lys
Wild Reddit Question Appears!
Of all the medieval motifs to choose from, why is the Fleur-de-lys so popular? Why don’t we see Papal staffs or English lions on fence posts, organisation logos and flags everywhere?
Side question: Where does it actually come from? It’s often listed as the coronation of Clovis in the 6th century, but some sources (not very trustworthy ones mind you) claim that the symbol dates back older than that.
Welcome to our class of Heraldry 101, young Padawan. I’m glad you made it on time. Today, we’ll discuss why the kings of France preferred a flower over, say, some powerful predator like the lion or the bear. I mean, isn’t it weird? And even weirded when you think that Charles VI chose winged deer as his emblem instead of… I don’t know… winged wolves, or dragons?
In order to get to the bottom of this mystery, we need to consider a few things.
1. Clovis Has Nothing to Do with It
By the second half of the 14th century, Charles V of France was all busy patroning the arts and the writing of many new lavish manuscripts—he wasn’t only bailing out the upcoming commander-in-chief of his army with his royal treasury. He had his own army of translators. They would offer French renditions of major Latin cultural texts; e.g. Raoul de Presles translated Augustine’s City of God.
Why the well would I bring up such pointless trivia?
The fact is that the whole Clovis legend you mention is mentioned in Raoul de Presles’ translation of Augustine’s City of God and that is because medieval translators didn’t only translated what they read, they also augmented their translations with new prologues, running commentaries and full-on exegeses. Don’t ask me why they did it, we’d be here for another hour at least. The fact is that they indulged themselves with such fancy rhetoric.
Raoul de Prelses translated the City of God for Charles V of France, therefore he wrote the latter a letter justifying his scholarly work and placed it at the beginning of it. Raoul de Prelses went on to talk about many things but first he had to remind how great, wise and noble Charles V of France actually was. Therefore he reminded the legend tying Clovis to the fleur-de-lys. Do you remember how Constantine converted to Christianism? Hold on to your seat because we’ve got some major flashback incoming.
According to the legend, Clovis was about to face a Saracen king who cut his way through Germany (not Spain) and was now threatening France. It was on this very battle that the battle-cries of “Monjoye” and “Saint-Denis” were shouted for the first time—just like La Hire would then shout them at Montargis, in 1427.
On the eve of battle, Clovis had a dream. He dreamt of three fleur-de-lys. The next day, he wiped what was then his emblem, three crescents (this version of the legend makes Clovis a Saracen himself!—in other versions of the tale, his emblem was made of three toads*), and replaced it with three fleur-de-lys. He then marched on to victory.
Raoul de Presles exposed as an obvious evidence that the legend was true that the Abbey of “Joie-en-Val”, which was allegedly founded after the battle—and is better known as the Abbey of Saint-Denis—still carried three fleur-de-lys on its escutcheon by his own lifetime. Let’s reckon that Raoul de Presles was very creative with archeological and heraldic materials but that he didn’t just made up the legend either. Suger, abbot of Saint-Denis, French official and chronicler, first came up with the idea in the 12th century. It was strongly passed on through the 13th century with the production of stained glasses and sculptures. Raoul de Presles merely revived the legend when he translated Augustine’s City of God, by the early 1370s, because around those very years, Charles V of France was changing the royal French coat of arms from “Azure semy-de-lys or” to “Azure, three fleurs-de-lys or”. As such, Charles V of France wished to symbolically tighten the knot between the French monarchy and the Holy Trinity, placing the kingdom of France under the direct protection of God—and himself, the king, as His direct representative on Earth.
* Michel Pastoureau (“Une fleur pour le roi. Jalons pour une histoire médiévale de la fleur de lis”, in Une histoire symbolique du Moyen Âge occidental. Paris: Seuil, 2004, p.110-124) quotes the manuscript Paris, BnF, fr. 22912, f. 3v and writes “crapaulx” (toads) instead of “croissans” (crescents) but this is a paleographic mistake. However, I didn’t have the time to cross-reference this finding with the latest edition of the BnF, fr. 22912 (Olivier Bertrand (ed.), La Cité de Dieu de saint Augustin traduite par Raoul de Presle (1371-1375), livres I à III, édition du manuscrit BnF fr. 22912. Paris: Honoré Champion, 2013).
** The semy-de-lys didn’t vanish, though. However, only the “three fleur-de-lys” came to symbolise the French king as a person and individual once Charles V of France was done with it, whereas the “semy-de-lys” became more of a general emblem related to the royalty.
2. When and How Did It All Start?
If it didn’t start with Clovis? When did the big fashion for fleur-de-lys emblems actually begin? Was it with Charlemagne? Was it with Hugues Capet? None of the above! The first died in 814 and the second in 996. As stated before—we live and die by our mantra, each and every one of us—coat of arms only came into fashion by the 12th century. It is only then that fleur-de-lys emblems started to sprout all over Europe.
The fleur-de-lys had many thing going for it to promote its success. First, its abstract representation was pretty. It matters. Second, it was a flower named in the Holy Bible. In the Song of Songs no less! “I am the rose of Sharon, and the lily of the valleys. | As the lily among thorns, so is my love among the daughters.” (Song 2:1-2) Those verses were picked up in the Middle Age to further the devotion to the Virgin Mary. The lily became Mary’s flower. She was depicted either surrounded by lilies or holding a lily into her hand on several French coins and ecclesiastic seals during the 12th century.
When the time came for the kings of France to choose their own symbol, they liked the idea of placing their realm under the protection of the Virgin Mary. Since the lily was her flower, they would be crowned while carrying great blue coats covered with golden lilies (instead of stars, that other regal figures fancied). That way, as a symbolic gesture, they placed themselves under the protection of the queen of Heaven, the mother of God, Mary. The symbolism was quite long in the making*. It took a few kings to be properly picked up but by 1211, a royal French figure is for the first time depicted on a seal with a shield that displays a “semy-de-lys”.
By then, however, the fleur-de-lys was a proper heraldic emblem, only second in popularity to the lion, the eagle, or a few geometric figures. It was often encountered in various places such as the northern Low Countries, the Rhine valley, the duchy of Brabant, the county of Artois, the duchy of Tuscany, many regions in France, etc. On seals, it ranks among the most used symbols in Normandy, Flanders, Zeeland and Switzerland. It was imprinted on the emblem of peasant families, urban communities (such as guilds) and cities. The city of Lille, in France, bears the lily on its coat of arms because it makes up for a great pun. In Latin, the lily is called lilium, it resembled “Lille” enough to draw a visual parallel.
* Though it was long in the making, the symbolism also lasted very long. In the basilica of Notre-Dame de Fourvière, which is a 19th century construction, we find a gorgeous mosaic of Louis XIII begging Mary to give him a son and secure the future of his realm. The prayer was heard and a son was born. He grew up to become Louis XIV. The Virgin Mary so appears, on several mosaics of the basilica, to have granted her special protection to the kingdom of France through the ages. Isn’t it amazing? How long symbols can survive?
3. The Fleur-de-Lys, Joan of Arc and the Medici
By the 15th century, the king of France started to share his emblematic fleur-de-lys to people, families and communities that supported him through hard times. I’ve already touched on it in my post about Joan of Arc’s origins but I don’t mind to cover the topic again. It’ll give me the opportunity to pile a few more details on the stack for you insatiable history geeks.
Some people have believed, because Joan of Arc was granted the right to carry a fleur-de-lys on her own coat of arms, that Charles VII secretly acknowledged her as his secret royal sister. What a prank! By the 15th century, French kings had already begun a long-lasting political strategy that we could tag as the hostile public takeover of power symbols. Just like they claimed that only them and no other could have inherited their aristocratic title “by the Grace of God”, they wished to monopolize the fleur-de-lys as their own symbol. The fleur-de-lys, despite its wide and ancient popularity, belonged to them, represented them, and was for them to “offer” to their most precious allies.
French kings would grant people the right to bear the fleur-de-lys on their coat of arms as a symbolic gesture of binding friendship. Joan of Arc wasn’t the only one to “receive” the fleur-de-lys from Charles VII. John Stewart of Darnley, Constable of the Scottish Army in France, was also granted the fleur-de-lys on his personal coat of arms, back in 1426, three years prior to Joan’s epic. Two cities at least, Tournay (1426-1427) and Saint-Maixant (1440) were also awarded fleur-de-lys for their valiant resistance against the “English”. Louis XI, who succeeded Charles VII, might have hated his father, but he understood the political finesse behind gifting the fleur-de-lys. He awarded it himself to the Medici family in 1465 for their precious aid.
The fact that two daughters of the Medici family later became queen of France certainly furthered the popularity of the fleur-de-lys. If you happen to visit the Palazzo Vecchio in Florence, you will end up in a room which walls are covered with fleur-de-lys.
Conclusion: Charles VI, the Winged Deer and the Fleur-de-Lys
I started with the mystery of Charles VI’s winged deer. I haven’t forgotten about it. Truth is that the deer, just like the fleur-de-lys, carried a religious meaning. The deer had been interpreted by scholars and theologians as a “red beast” (meaning, a good beast) and as a symbol of Christ—for various reasons that would be too long to enumerate here. The lion, too, was a symbol of Christ, though it is a predator. On the contrary, wolves, bears or boars had become devilish avatars.
To conclude on that note, the popularity of the fleur-de-lys was boosted by its perception as a religious and then regal emblem. It quickly became a popular emblem on coat of arms from the very start, but its political (and spiritual) appropriation by the kings of France only made it more visible, meaningful and desirable.